Countdown to the last 'Oprah Winfrey Show': Oprah makes us cry, reminds us why her show was revolutionary
And then there are the sad days . . . the waterworks days, the days when Oprah Winfrey reaches inside and squeezes viewers with a giant metal claw until the tears pour out. Thursday was one of those days, when Oprah Winfrey, on her fifth-to-last episode (everrrrr!), invited guests who had previously shared emotionally harrowing tales to return to her couch.
As with so much of Winfrey's wind-down, the power of the episode was derived not so much from the contemporary catch-up but from the excuse to show clips of the stuff that made "The Oprah Winfrey Show" the powerhouse it’s been for 2 1/2 decades.
Winfrey is highlighting the best of the best, the schmaltziest of the schmaltzy, the material memorable enough to merit a replay slot in her final days. In short: Even if you’re the sort to pride oneself on never being brought to tears by hokey, confessional daytime television, Thursday’s episode might well have been a challenge.
First up was a family that had appeared on "Oprah" in the wake of their mother’s abandonment, a segment that Winfrey said “taught me about the untold damage being done to millions of children going through divorce.” Yikes.
The clip of the original show included 5-year-old son Kris weeping as he recalled to child psychologist Gary Neuman, “This one day . . . my mother went away and I don’t want her to go away.” Another flashback showed Neuman asking 10-year-old sister Daisy what it felt like when her absent mother would stand her up. “It makes me feel fat,” said the child, explaining that she wore perfume and lipstick so that her mother would think she was pretty enough to come back to her. “I try and I try,” Daisy said in flashback, “And I keep failing.” Meanwhile, the still-crying Kris said of his departed mother, “I got enough money to buy her a ring to fit her finger,” hoping it would prompt her return, but “she didn’t want it and it didn’t make her come back.”
At one point, the tape cut away to Winfrey, who said, “Now we’re all crying,” and OK, we probably were.
And that was just the beginning. In the next segment, Winfrey took it to Rwanda, revisiting an episode featuring Clemantine Wamariya, who as a 6-year-old hid in a banana tree with her older sister Claire, listening to what they believed to be the sound of her family being murdered in the 1994 genocide. The girls hid for 100 days, then spent six years in refugee camps before coming to America to live with a foster family.
“That was a moment,” crowed modern-day Winfrey, like a champion fisherman nonchalantly recalling the day she’d hauled in Moby-Dick.
The whole Wamariya family — now all living in the U.S. — were back on the show Thursday, and Clemantine, now a Yale student, told the audience about how every time she gets stressed out about schoolwork, she looks at her pencil case, the sole possession she retains from Africa, and considers the scale of her hardships. “It’s sometimes very hard to have three papers,” she said, “but when I weigh it with the other challenges I’ve had, it’s nothing. I’m not thinking about what food I have to eat; I don’t have to fetch water.”
The truth was, not much could top Clemantine and her family, but Winfrey gave it the old college try, returning to a 1998 show on which Erin Kramp, a 36-year-old mother dying of breast cancer, described how she was making videotapes so that her then-6-year-old daughter, Peyton, might know who her mother was.
Winfrey showed some of those tapes, in which Erin, who died six months after her appearance on the show, offered tips on makeup and husbands to the daughter who would barely remember her in life. On Thursday, Peyton, now grown up and a Duke student, joined Winfrey along with her father and stepmother. Articulate and direct, Peyton admitted that it was now much harder for her to watch the tapes of her mother than it was when she had been younger and that some of her favorites were the videos that showed her with her parents, ones in which you could see “my parents interacting, how in love they were, what our family dynamic was, the three of us together.”
“I had an incredible mom,” said Peyton. “And it makes me incredibly sad because I only got to be her daughter for six years.”
Oh, Oprah, make it stop!
“There have been, we can’t even count, tens of thousands of guests on the 'Oprah' show,” Winfrey said at the conclusion of Thursday’s episode. “All impacting our lives with their stories . . . that’s what you saw here today.”
It’s easy to forget sometimes that in between the book clubs and the Tom Cruise interviews and the weight loss specials, the basis of Oprah Winfrey’s enterprise has been her unique ability to get ordinary civilians to sit on her couch and pour their hearts out to her.
Oprah did not invent the talk show format. Indeed, she lifted much of her style from Phil Donahue, the host who so successfully combined confessional television with political sensibility throughout the 1970s and '80s. In turn, Winfrey’s most unapologetic imitators, notably Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres, pushed forward in the same affable, celebrity-friendly vein.
But it would be crazy to forget that Winfrey also shares some DNA with her long-gone, more down-market contemporaries, Sally Jesse Raphael and Jerry Springer. No, there rarely have been fistfights on "Oprah Winfrey," but she has played host to plenty of the cheating-and-paternity-test sturm-und-drang as well as to the more refined tragedies revisited on Thursday. That element — ordinary people baring their souls for a national audience — is part of what has made Winfrey’s brand so important.
There is a valid argument that daytime television has been progressive television. Aimed for decades solely at women at home by choice or by convention, daytime was such a marginalized genre that no one in the wider entertainment industry patrolled its borders with particular zeal, and it became a haven for the kinds of people who had no chance of finding other perches on television.
Daytime soaps, until recently the meat of the daytime lineup, were created by and populated by strong women when precious little else in Hollywood was; it was on soaps that issues like abortion, AIDS and homosexuality found direct and humane attention, often earlier than on prime-time or in movie theaters.
The talk shows, meanwhile, became a place where Americans of otherwise invisible races, classes, sizes and sexualities were able to find a foothold as personalities and hosts (see Winfrey, O’Donnell and DeGeneres, for example) and also to make their voices heard as guests.
Yes, sometimes it involved low-budget theatrics, but in those days, the Springer-style circus was the only venue in which a moderately accurate picture of the nation, and especially its less economically privileged populations, was available on television.
Winfrey massaged that dynamic into less of a sideshow than the colleagues who relied on hair pulling and chair throwing to boost ratings. What she had was the ability to draw out the honest admission, the emotions, the unvarnished narratives of those she invited to her studio. One tale at a time, Winfrey was introducing America to itself, providing us with the perspectives of the depressed, the ill, the cuckolded, the bereaved, the addicted, the prejudiced, the discriminated against and the impoverished who would otherwise have found no pop culture purchase.
Winfrey allowed her millions of viewers to see themselves reflected on television, which, in the days before the fraught genre of reality television took root, was its own kind of revolution.
Perhaps the best testament to exactly how powerful this act can be was given voice on Thursday by Clemantine Wamariya. Asked Thursday by Winfrey what she wanted to do after she graduated from Yale, Clemantine replied, “I hope I will work with people who really need help . . . people who really need stories to be told or need to be recognized as human beings.”
In a funny way, it’s what Oprah Winfrey has been doing in her own imperfect way for a quarter of a century.
— Rebecca Traister
Photo: Oprah Winfrey at a Tuesday taping of "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular." Photo credit: Charles Rex Arbogast /Associated Press.